SENCER E-Newsletter, October 2006, Volume 6, Issue 2
Science Education for Pre-Service Teachers: What Constitutes Adequate Preparation?
Adrienne Wootters, Department of Physics, and Mike Ganger, Department of Biology Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, North Adams, MA
As professors at a small public liberal arts college, our primary task is teaching our undergraduates, both science majors and non-science majors. MCLA is also committed to its community, and in response to our local community needs, a few years ago we applied for and were awarded a three-year grant from the Massachusetts Department of Education. The goal of the grant is to provide content information in physical, biological, and earth science so that more science teachers may achieve the status of "highly qualified". We are now in our third year of that grant. The first two years covered introductory physics and biology. This third year, we are co-teaching a course in environmental science.
This is a small project: there has been an average of 12 students in each course, most of whom will have participated during all three years of the grant. Because of the intimate nature of the courses, over the past two years we have formed good relationships with our participants, and we have come to understand more clearly the challenges they face in their classrooms and in dealing with various levels of bureaucracy. All of our participants are curious about how the world works and eager to share what they have learned with their own students, but the majority of them were not science majors in school. While some of them were thinking about a career in education as undergraduates, few of them were prepared to teach middle school science when they graduated from college. At least half of them were teaching a different subject and became middle school science teachers in order to fill faculty gaps at their schools.
Through pretests and conversations, we looked carefully at what our participants knew and didn't know, which skills they had and which were lacking. At the outset of this project, most participants had taken only one or two science courses for non-majors; they were largely self-taught. Whether they understood and could implement the scientific method was generally dependent on whether it had been addressed in their one or two courses.
It is our understanding that the undergraduate preparation of the average middle school teacher in Berkshire County reflects the national situation. This has led us to look at the education we provide our own undergraduates. Students who plan to become elementary school teachers are generally not science majors; most of them will take only two science courses, and those courses will be for non-science majors. In the past five years, MCLA has developed a set of rubrics for all science courses that meet our core education requirements. In addition to covering science content, qualifying courses must address the scientific method. If we as faculty do our job, our undergraduates will graduate
understanding the difference between good and bad science, they will know a little science content, they will know how to learn new science content, and they will be able to communicate what they know.
Typically, we have only two opportunities (courses) to turn the average science-hating student into a science lover. Some students will take SENCER-ized courses, but many will not. A few will have active learning processes modeled for them, including inquiry-based learning. Most courses, however, are in the traditional lecture format. What does this mean for our undergraduates? From our vantage point, it looks like whether a future elementary school teacher will be able to model inquiry-based learning techniques for their own students is dependent on a roll of the dice.
Changing scientific attitudes and habits of mind of future elementary teachers is one challenge. Even more problematic for us is the question of middle school teacher preparation. An ideally prepared middle school teacher majored in a field of science. This person has also taken several science courses outside their major, and is able to make connections between the various fields. However, as it stands at MCLA (which has a fairly standard curriculum,) a physics major is not required to take a biology course. Neither the physics major nor the biology major is required to take any earth science. There are very few undergraduates who have heard the call to teach middle school. Because most of our majors are not thinking about middle school education, they are not opting to widen their science horizons.
In short, we feel that the standard college science curriculum falls short in terms of providing consistent modeling of inquiry-based learning and in terms of providing a broader understanding of the different facets of science and how they relate to one another. We realize that the onus is on us to better tool our college's curriculum to provide science content and teaching tools for all undergraduates who are considering a field in education. We hope to start a dialogue among colleges and universities that provide science content to pre-service teachers, particularly elementary and middle school teachers. What would a proper curriculum for a science major look like? How should we advise our majors who might become teachers? How can we reliably and most effectively model innovative teaching tools? These are but a few of the questions we ask as we struggle to provide quality science education for our community.